A judge has cleared the way for horse slaughterhouses to resume operating in the US as early as next week.
District Judge Christina Armijo in Albuquerque yesterday threw out a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the US and other animal protection groups.
They had alleged the Department of Agriculture failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to Valley Meat Company in Roswell, New Mexico, and an Iowa company to slaughter horses for human consumption.
The decision ends, for now, a two-year battle by Valley Meat to open the slaughterhouse.
The debate over a return to domestic horse slaughter is an emotional one that centres on whether horses are livestock or companion animals, and the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation, particularly in the drought-stricken West.
Supporters say it is better to slaughter unwanted horses in regulated domestic plants than to ship them to sometimes inhumane plants in Mexico.
The issue has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes.
The plants would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the US since Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections at the plants in 2006.
It restored that funding in 2011, but the Department of Agriculture did not approve the first permits for horse slaughter plants until this summer.
The companies want to ship horse meat to countries where it is eaten by humans or used as animal feed.
Valley Meat owner Rick De Los Santos and his lawyer Blair Dunn admitted they were surprised when the ruling came down, hours after a temporary restraining order that barred the companies from opening in August had expired.
"I thought the court was headed in a different direction on this since," Mr Dunn said. "I am very, very happy to be wrong."
The Humane Society, joined by the state of New Mexico, filed an almost immediate appeal to the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Mr De Los Santos estimated it would be seven to 10 days before he was up and running. But Mr Dunn said Rains Natural Meats, in Gallatin, Missouri, was poised to open as early as Monday.
A third company, Responsible Transportation, which was started in Sigourney, Iowa, by three recent college graduates, abandoned its plan to process horses and converted to cattle after the restraining order was issued in August.